Transcending Blame

Urban violence, says Reverend Jeffrey Brown, is the outcome of a “generation with a broken moral compass and little respect for life or the living.” Rev. Brown led Black Christian clergy in community efforts to mitigate youth violence. When he said poor neighborhoods in cities throughout the U.S. have become war zones because of collapsing moral values, it seemed, to many people, to be a truism. But to me, it’s a travesty; one that compelled me to write this book — that I believe can carry the reader beyond that “axis of evil” narrative; and fight the currents that pull us to demonization.

Lisa Fliegel
Lisa Fliegel

If “all demonizing is untruth,”* then being embedded is a way to discover the truth. Embedded describes my unusual style of providing real-time psychological trauma treatment: Touchstone moments working with Complex Trauma and Post Traumatic Stress in Israel/Palestine, Northern Ireland and Inner-City Boston compel me to step out of the clinic, for a street-level view of the conditions that are created whereby violence begets trauma — and trauma, untreated, begets violence once again.

I work with people in their community, as they go about their day. I work in schools while gas leaks into the hallways, bury a client’s cat in my front yard, let a teenage girl pull out my hair, order barbecued chicken wings for a teenage boy having a crisis of faith, duck flying tables thrown by youth service providers critical of my advocacy efforts, stand on rooftops with Palestinian labor leaders, fly on airplanes with ex-paramilitaries and dodge bombs and bullets of every kind. Bulletproof so far.

How do we make sense of acts of violence and terror in order to prevent them in the future? Bryan Stevenson the director of the Equal Justice Initiative says: When we get close, we hear things that can’t be heard from afar. We see things that can’t be seen.

Bulletproof Therapist positions the reader at this ground-level view of the conditions that are created whereby people do things they shouldn’t do; and to moments of engagement and opportunity that emerge from crises in individual relationships, the inner city, and on the world stage. These narratives of healing are drawn from my work in three disparate places that have faced seemingly intractable pain and conflict: inner-city Boston, Israel/Palestine, and Northern Ireland.

This work of narrative nonfiction is about people who want so much to do well, but find themselves stuck and suffering. The healing relationships that mark this story go both ways, and offer a distilled wisdom that can dramatically reshape how we interpret violence and achieve resolution.

*From Barking to the Choir: The Power of Radical Kinship. Gregory Boyle, Simon and Schuster


Impact Statement

The Vietnam War brought to widespread public attention the concept of collective trauma, rallying a unique coalition of political and clinical efforts, with the result that Post-Traumatic-Stress-Disorder (PTSD) came to be included in the canon of psychiatric diagnosis (first included in the DSM-III in 1980) and legitimized as a part of social and political awareness ever since….

A Taste of Bulletproof Therapist (excerpts)

This reading took place in May 2016 during Lisa’s Marble House residency. Marble House Project is a multi-disciplinary artist residency program in Dorset, Vermont that fosters collaboration and the exchange of ideas by providing an environment for artists across disciplines to live and work side by side.

Section I: The Girls

I was ready for a change from all my hot, gritty-sand-in-my-teeth, sweaty, in-between-wars pre-occupations, so I flew from Israel to Burlington, Vermont where they have support groups for people who like the smell of skunk. I began my art therapy program in Montpelier, where the noon-day siren is reminiscent of the warning alarm for scud missile attacks during the Gulf Wars. I’d become a blown-apart, war-zone savant. Bombs bursting in air? I was at the top of my game, but I had no idea what to do when it was time for lunch.

Edith Kramer, a feisty refugee from Nazi Vienna delivered the convocation to my graduating class. Kramer advised that we’d be better off “maladapted to all in our society that would stifle independent thought and action.” She told us that adolescent girls are the most difficult to work with — even though she had worked with inmates in Rikers Island. I was already quite adept at being maladapted. With these caveats in mind, I created The Arts Incentives Program for adolescent girls living on the cusp of trauma and disregard.

Section II: Bridge

As soon as the news shifted to sports, and weather, my mother would leave the couch; go upstairs, where we’d hear her on the phone carefully orchestrating the delicate strategy of translating laws into policies, and policies into practice. We could hear her occasionally, when we lowered the volume during commercials breaks from The Wonderful World of Disney: “Uh huh, that’s right. Ok then…”

On days when it seemed as though her team was winning, we’d see the other side of her. She’d inaugurate bedtime by throwing an imaginary rope to us down the stairs.

“But Mom, I’m too tired to climb the stairs. Can’t I just sleep downstairs tonight?”

“Come on, you can do it. Just hold on to the rope.” Her voice so commanding, with a lilt of humor and eyes glistening, we had no choice but to grab onto the rope, clutching the stairs with our own measure of drama. My mother would pull, she would strain: my bare feet roughly sliding over the deep red-rough surface of the antique-carpeted stairs. Tucked in and my eyes fluttering shut, I would try to remember how it all happened. How did I get there? The rope wasn’t even real but somehow it got me to the top.

Section III: The Boys

And now at The Upham’s Corner House of Pizza, in Dorchester, on Columbia Road — where the Boston Police department’s cameras dotted the streets to register gun shots in real time; Columbia Road where they stopped and frisked Jason so much he began to imagine that he must have done something really terrible even though he could not figure out what it was; this Jew was thrown for a loop: I was the eyewitness to Jason, who had been paying attention all along.

Section IV: Transition

I attend the Journey Toward Healing conference at The Europa Hotel; in Belfast, Northern Ireland. The hotel is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s most bombed hotel reminiscent of the 1946 bombing of Jerusalem’s King David Hotel. I am presenting my project “Welcome to Peaceville,” with sibling survivors of victims of homicide. I am joined by my friend Talya Levanon the director of The Israel Trauma Coalition who is presenting on the Coalition’s National Resilience model. We are hosted by the Methodist Minister Gary Mason. Reverend Mason worked closely with Loyalist (protestant) ex-paramilitary leaders to decommission their arms in advancement of the Good Friday Agreement. Gary hosts Shabbat dinner and introduces me to Jackie the Terrorist who regrets that he’ll never be able to take his grandchildren to Disneyland.

Section V: The Guys

Gary’s brainchild, the Northern Ireland Study Tour of Israel/Palestine, was designed to bring The Guys out of the shadows and to share the story of their journey to peace. The Guys deemed Gary an “honest broker” who they had chosen to accompany officials from General John de Chatelaine’s Independent International Commission on Decommissioning (IICD) when overseeing (paramilitary) Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) guns and explosives being put beyond use.

Now that I look back, it is hard for me to believe that The Guys only decommissioned their arms three years before I met them. It’s hard for me to imagine them lugging around an arsenal, afterall, when I met them at the airport, they lugged travel bags just like any other tourist flying out of town.